Volume 16 Issue 3
By Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
CSU Humboldt professor Jeff Black.
Birds of a feather may flock together, but the findings of CSU Humboldt professor Jeff Black show that personalities also come into play when it comes to building a nest and staying faithful.
Black, a member of the California Faculty Association, is an expert on fowl behavior and fascinated by what makes some relationships soar and others run aground.
He has studied two dozen species of birds including Aleutian, barnacle, brant and Canada geese. He was an editor of Partnerships in Birds, a book in which scientists around the world analyze data about birds. Courses that he teaches include Wildlife Techniques, Waterfowl Ecology and Management, Wildlife Ethology, and Behavioral Ecology. He completed a textbook/monograph, Wild Goose Dilemmas (2007), which compiles new highlights from a 25-year study of arctic geese traveling between nesting, staging, and wintering grounds. The book is about how individuals solve daily, seasonal and lifetime problems while striving to survive and reproduce.
“Lots of studies in the ’80s and ’90s showed that birds were not all that faithful,” says Black, who received his doctorate in zoology from the University of Wales in 2001. “But my work is mostly with geese and swans, which are renowned for being monogamous."
While other species take flight from commitment, geese and swans are, well, different. Black’s research has led him to label this as “extreme monogamy,” describing it as “every minute of every day for a very long time.”
Monogamous birds, like people, change their behavior after years and years of togetherness, he has observed. His research has shown that geese and swans communicate differently as they get older, in terms of honking.
“After being together every minute every day for 25 years of life, always being right next to each other, they talk louder,” says Black. When asked if it’s a problem with their hearing or if they simply start tuning each other out, he stops to think about it.
“I think they do it because they can.”
Last year he began studying local Steller’s jays, commonly known as blue jays. He is trying to determine why some pairs of male and female blue jays last and others stay together only temporarily. It may depend on personality traits, such as whether a bold male and shy female last longer, or vice versa. Black has been observing their behavior on bird feeders and has tagged many of the “locals” with different colors for males and females.
“The goal of this exercise is to practice identifying behavioral cues for determining the mating system in this jay society,” Black says. “Steller’s jays appear to concentrate their daily activity around a home site where they roost each night, but much of the day is spent foraging in adjacent redwoods or gathering in larger social groups. Each pair and associated full-grown offspring vary in the amount of time they spend together; some pairs always travel together, and others rarely do.”
Black is also engaged in “citizen science,” asking those in the Humboldt area to send him their observations about birds and river otters.
Would he ever consider studying humans?
“No,” he replies quickly. “I’ll stick with birds.”